A Little Adam Smith on Labor Day

A little who?  Those who know Adam Smith only by reputation, or as a neglected saint of the modern right and libertarians may be a bit surprised at the sympathy he expressed towards the strivings of labor, particularly its attempts to organize.  I know I was.  Here’s a selection from Book I Section VIII of Wealth of Nations:

What are the common wages of labour depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties [workmen and masters], whose interests are by no means the same.  The workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible.  The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour.

It is not, however, difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms.  The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen.  We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it.  In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer.  A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired.  many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment.  In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of the masters; though frequently those of workmen.  But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject.

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